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Sunday, February 25, 2024 | Back issues
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Oakland could be ground zero for the future of police reform, community leaders say

Oakland leaders showed up to share their ideas for how to truly reform a scandal-ridden police force, amid local protests against police brutality.

OAKLAND, Calif. (CN) — Longtime Oakland activists say the city’s police department needs a deeper effort toward reform if it is ever to exit a federal monitor and conclude a seemingly endless string of internal scandals that have seen the city push out multiple department chiefs.

That work will be lengthy, local leaders say.

“Rome wasn’t built in a day,” said Oakland’s inspector general Michelle Phillips to a panel assembled Friday night. Her office is designed to succeed the federal monitor, when the city finally transitions from a federal negotiated settlement.

Phillips joined several prominent local speakers, on the Coalition for Police Accountability's panel titled “The Future of the Oakland Police Department,” who hold crucial roles that will affect what that reform effort could look like. The meeting moderated by John Jones III coincided with protests of police brutality around the country, shortly after the video of Tyre Nichols’ killing by Memphis, Tenn. police went public. George Cummings, executive director of Faith in Action East Bay, opened with prayer over Nichols’ death and announced a rally Sunday in downtown Oakland organized by the Anti Police-Terror Project.

Oakland residents asked the City Council earlier Friday to address how the city is not responding to public records requests. The Police Commission approved Thursday a letter asking the department to hand over records requested in October about the current internal investigations scandal — after an independent law firm reported two incidents of a sergeant, Michael Chung, failing to report crashing his vehicle in 2021 and firing his gun inside the Police Administration Building last year.

That report's accusations of corruption within the police department drove the city to place Chief LeRonne Armstrong on paid leave — and U.S. District Court Judge William Orrick ordered the city to create a new plan to reach full compliance with the federal monitor’s negotiated settlement agreement.

In the panel Friday night, Alyssa Victory told community leaders that “Hearing we are going to be spending time and money on outside consultants, instead of community consulting and reviewing the many documents from experts and outlining how this can happen, is disappointing.”

However, Jim Chanin, the plaintiffs’ attorney in the federal monitor case, said he thinks there has been significant progress in Oakland which other cities could learn from. 

Oakland police may receive more complaints than any police agency in the country, but handle them more rapidly today, he said. Officer-involved shootings have dropped to zero to one per year for years, where five to six people were shot each year in the past. Nondiscretionary stops of Black people is down 80%, being less than 1,000 compared to about 20,000 stopped five or six years ago. 

“I don’t want people to get in the place where they think it’s impossible, that no matter what they do the killings will continue and there’ll continue to be misconduct,” Chanin said. "We can never stop, we can never achieve total victory. On the other hand, we cannot abuse ourselves to the point where we just give up or feel bad because nothing is being done.”

Newly elected District Attorney Pamela Price said the fact that she is the first Black woman DA the county has had speaks to progress. She said her office is partly focusing on holding all 23 police agencies accountable.

“Policing as it is practiced in this country, it does not matter what your color is,” Price said. “The men that killed this brother, Nichols, were Black men. The color of your skin does not give you a pass. The question is are you prepared to protect, to serve, to do what you can with integrity on behalf of the people?” 

Price said some issues that need to change include Oakland police under-utilizing a diversion center her officer operates, and the Mobile Assistance Community Responders program for non-violent, non-emergency calls.

“We have a 5150 problem in Alameda County and it’s primarily a Black people problem, because we over-incarcerate, over-criminalize and over-restrain Black men in this community,” Price said. 

She added that she thinks Mayor Sheng Thao should aggressively bring oversight power back to the city. Currently, that would require “the federal court ceding control, and the monitor ceding control, to the duly appointed Police Commission.”

Jose Dorado, a former police commissioner, says the mayor’s plan for police complying with the federal monitor needs a detailed commitment to empowering community members to ensure city promises are followed through. 

Police Commission vice chair David Jordan said the commission may be the most empowered body of its type in the country due to subpoena powers, and must rely on data. But Michelle Phillips, Oakland Inspector General, said they need to hear from community members and consider what is data and what are stories from real people — and make sure the Community Police Review Agency has the legislative backing to get work done. 

The agency's interim director Charlotte Jones was asked if it is possible to move internal investigations from within OPD, to her board. She said it is not ready, being short staffed, but a consulting firm will soon report what that could look like in the future. 

Chanin said the police are “terrified” of this, and that “It has to be done right. They have really good lawyers who will jump on you.” 

He added that despite having a supermajority of Democrats in California, “the laws suck” in part because “A number of them are bought and paid for by the police unions, and they are no better than Republicans on these issues.”

Chanin added he thinks “nobody in uniform should be in internal affairs” as it is impossible for them to do so objectively — and very expensive due to “super duper pensions.” He said 1.5 to 2 investigators costs as much as one cop, who could be out in the field instead. 

Dorado said the city must stop sending cops to the more than half of calls for nonviolent incidents. Price agreed that police always focus on needing bigger budgets, not how to best utilize the resources they have, while people continue to complain that police never arrive when called for. 

Most importantly, she told the panel of Oaklanders, it is critical for the community to keep showing up to hold police, and agencies with oversight over police, accountable. 

“Police have incredible power and privilege in this community to decide who to arrest, what charges to bring,” Price said. 

“So many people have been harmed by the legacy of policing in Alameda County. They don’t have a voice, they’re not going to be able to speak. So for those of us who can speak, we got to be consistent and loud and clear and not afraid.”

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Categories / Criminal, Government

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